Thursday, January 29, 2009

Ghost Ship to the East

I left the lounge and wandered around the airport for a while, visiting a coffee bar for one last sandwich of Iberian half-cured ham and cheese. It was pretty good, but the news at my gate was less so – a forty minute delay. Seemed like one of those days was taking form, delayed 4 hours in Beijing before even leaving and now this and I wasn’t liking it one bit

But it turned out to be not so bad; we departed only 15 minutes later than schedule. When the pilot chimed in and informed us that the delay was due to unusually heavy snow in Munich I immediately set to pondering just what that might mean for the next part of my day. A bullet dodged and another one loaded?

At this point I’d like to stop and tell you just how much I like Lufthansa, not for any particular reason aside from the fact that they are wonderful. The attendants are friendly, the seats are clean, everyone is cheery and the cheese sandwich on baguette was really, really tasty. If My Lovely Wife was an airline, she would be Lufthansa.

The view out the window was beautiful – the Austrian Alps were shrouded in snow and a thick blanket of fog filled the valleys between the jagged peaks, leaving only their tips exposed. It was late afternoon and the sky was just beginning to develop a pinkish tinge which made the black rock blacker and the white mist very peaceful. It sort of made me wish I had accepted the offer of a window seat made by the guy in my row but, I’m steadfast when it comes to keeping my aisle seat – no compromises. And what is it with these Germans always wanting to change seats?

The trip was fast and in the end I only came in about 15 minutes late hardly denting my layover. Munich was a new one for me and it took a few minutes to figure out how I should go about doing a transfer. It turned out that I needed to pass one more time through passport control and I think I finally figured out that when you enter continental Europe through any port, you subsequently move around at will. When it’s time to catch an international flight to somewhere else, you exit. And so my goal of a Spanish stamp in my documents was thwarted – I ended up with two from Germany. For some odd reason though, Britain and Ireland don’t play the same game requiring their own entry and exit stamps. I guess I need to find a direct flight from somewhere to Madrid.

The Munich and Frankfurt airports look pretty much the same – glass, steel, marble and long, long corridors. It took a while for my gate to come up on the screen – the last flight listed had a 10 minute earlier departure, and it held the last spot for quite a while. When it came up, it took me back a bit - the final destination for flight CA962 was Dalian, not Beijing. The little wheels started turning and I began to consider for just the tiniest little moment that I might have an opportunity to avoid the day sitting around the airport that was currently on my itinerary.

Before wandering off to a lounge or for something to eat, I always get my bearings by visiting my departure gate. It’s a habit that allows me to take it easy while hanging around – I know where I have to go and how long it takes to get there. This time though I was on a mission so I took the walk down the long dark corridor until I arrived where I had a chat with a very helpful Lufthansa agent on the topic of getting on that Beijing to Dalian extension. She was wonderful but helpless – no access to the Air China systems. She suggested that their gate agent could help me and with a knowing smile recommended that I return in an hour. An hour she said, smiling. Yes, about an hour.

Per my routine I wasted a bit of time in the lounge and did a little window shopping in a very fancy watch store before going back down around an hour and a half before the posted boarding time. The Air China agent did eventually show up – late – and I stood patiently while she logged on.

I explained my situation and asked to be switched to the earlier flight. She said “no.” I said I was getting in too late and she asked if I had baggage. I told her “no” and she asked to see my ticket which of course I didn’t have, having never checked in, so I showed her my reservation. She took it and played around for a while, eventually coming up with an e-ticket number. She then verified that I wanted to cancel my later reservation in favor of the newer one and I gave my assent – I was in! But of course there was a hitch – no boarding pass. I asked how that was going to work and she assured me that “one of her colleagues” would meet all of the transferring passengers in Beijing and shepherd us to the continuing plane. I had about 14% confidence that any of that was going to happen but it was a chance worth taking as the other choices were to sit around for 7 hours or try to find an earlier flight out of the other airport.

It was soon time to board and like every other flight involving China the process was mess. I know I am starting to sound like a broken record on this and I wouldn’t blame any of you if you stopped reading my flying episodes. But every time it’s bad or worse or just plain stupid. Tonight one guy muscled his way to my side and then purposely put his bags directly in front of me. Another allowed his 3 year old boy to run a baggage cart into the waiting people. I used to get offended, now I just push people aside and go on.

Judging from the waiting area this flight was vastly undersold but I guess they fly in this state if only to return the plane to its parking spot in China. Boarding took all of 10 minutes and anyone traveling alone more or less had an entire row to themselves. I had booked an aisle seat in the center four and I sat there with my fingers crossed as the remaining passengers boarded and went by. I was home free.

Dinner came quickly and having downed yet another airplane meal of rice and little gray strips of beef I put up all the arm rests in my little nook, collected the pillows and blankets and stretched out. I am not much of an airplane sleeper – the seats are too small and rigid for someone my size and I hate having my head flop around as though it’s held on by a string of spaghetti. But tonight was a wonderful long trip asleep punctuated only by seat belt buckles sticking in my ribs and thoughts about where those blankets and pillows had been recently. I’m sure they changed them all after the incoming flight, aren’t you? One at least was wrapped in plastic.

Aside from waking up to various itches and a burning pain in my right ear from sleeping on my side with my noise cancelling headphones left on, I ended up sleeping pretty soundly until the final hour of the flight figuring I might as well wake up and avail myself of the free breakfast. My mouth had some sort of awful taste no doubt from breathing the stale airplane air and the out-gassing seat cushions I had jammed my face into. But I was rested and I had pretty much defeated the time zone shift by falling asleep at about my regular bed time and waking up in the morning on the other side of the world. Besides, I had to have my wits about me for the upcoming attempt at getting on my newly arranged flight.

We landed and put to bed the notion that jumbo jets are never unloaded with rolling stairs and buses. So much for modernization. Two young women were meeting passengers on the tarmac, putting stickers on their shoulders indicating a transfer. I walked up and said “Dalian” and she asked for my boarding pass. I explained what had happened in Munich and she was having none of it “you will have to go out to the Air China desk and check in.” I told her “no”, there wasn’t enough time and from there we got into a back and forth which I finally won when she told me to go to the Transfer Desk. As it turned out, we were both partially correct, but this was something I didn’t understand until I rode the train from the international terminal, walked about 2 miles, passed through Immigration where I was kicked out of the Chinese Nationals line (which I have used 100 times before) only to go to the Foreigner line just as the agent who sent me packing changed her line to one that I could have used. I made it to the Transfer Desk, collected my ticket, walked another two miles to the C gates, cleared security and did so with 45 minutes to spare. Only now could I begin to believe that I had pulled it off.

I can’t recall having ever left from the domestic portion of the fancy new airport. It was nice enough including a little playground for the tots which happened to be by my gate. A tiny slide, some animals for rocking back and forth and a flat screen TV showing stationary Tom and Jerry cartoons. By stationary I mean Tom and Jerry were there, but they weren’t moving they were just standing there on the screen grinning at the little children to a soundtrack that was so bizarre that it forced me to leave until boarding time. Fifteen seconds of bouncy nursery school music followed by two bars of “The Song of the Volga Boatmen.” Over and over and over. Don’t claim to not know what I am talking about, because if you think about it for a second you’ll know exactly what I am referring to. It’s that piece of onomatopoeia classical music that brings to mind one thing only – a bunch of floppy-hatted, muscled Slavs in sleeveless shirts pulling barges down a canal with long ropes. Who thought up that combination? A relative of the designer of the infamous Chained Naked Babies lamp posts out at our local American school? (Update on those lamp posts – someone removed the chains, no doubt having been embarrassed by my blog. But they still march on in their toddling bronze eternity.)

Aside from the air, crowding, traffic and dirt, the one thing that really irritates me about living here is the fact that there is always one more flight and in my case a long drive to finally put a trip to bed. At least I got in on time and after figuring out that my driver was waiting for me at the wrong exit, I was headed home.

I managed to catch up with My Lovely Wife just as her day was ending. This was a new thing for us, jetting around the world for a romantic tryst in a far off land and I have to say I like it. It was fun, it was romantic and I’d do it again in a minute. Relishing the memory I spent the rest of the afternoon doing laundry in my little machine, plugging in all the lights and appliances that the maid had unplugged (for who knows what reason) and catching up on the six episodes of “24” that I had missed. Dinner was peanut butter and jelly crackers, a far cry from the great food of this last week and a dark suggestion that perhaps I have taken a giant step backwards to my days in the dorm when many dinners were just the same. I wish I could say something deeper concerning that little epiphany but the wisdom isn’t flowing tonight. Rather it’s just that feeling that real life begins again tomorrow at “ba dian cha yi ke” – 7:45.

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